When most people think of craft beer in Oregon, nine times out of ten they think of Portland, arguably the beer capital of the Pacific Northwest. One out of those ten might think of Bend with its exploding craft beer scene anchored by Deschutes Brewery, or Eugene with powerhouses like Ninkasi and Oakshire Brewing, or even the occasional Baker City with its somewhat obscure brewpub that’s been winning GABF medals these last few years.
Odds are the town of Oakridge, Oregon is completely off their radar, as is the local brewpub: the Brewers Union Local 180. Nestled midway between Eugene and Bend and completely surrounded by National Forest, this small town of barely 3300 seems an unlikely place of a brewery of any kind, much less one that has the distinction of being the only Real Ale brewery in the entire state. They are modeled after a classic English pub and serve their own “Real Ale” exclusively–live, unfiltered, unpasteurized, cask-conditioned beer at cellar temperatures. Oh, and in an era of race-to-the-top high-alcohol and extreme beers, they buck that trend too: lower-alcohol, sessionable and quaffable tipples that encourage enjoyment and contemplation rather than rowdy loud behavior. The pub itself encourages this as well: comfortable, homey, unhurried, eclectic, with an English-style menu and unmatched atmosphere. I love it.
The beers are great, too; there is a loose assortment of regular beers that may or not be on tap (depending on owner/brewer Ted Sobel’s whims) but when I first visited there was a Dark Mild, a Best Bitter, a Porter, a Stock Ale and two IPAs on the menu–and only one of those broke 6% alcohol by volume. (As of this writing the current list on their website are a Bitter, a Special Bitter, an “ORA” [Oregon Red Ale] and IPA and a Winter Stout.) The lower-alcohol beers pulled via handpump from the cask all exhibit a lovely depth and complexity and are quite unlike most of the other stronger hop-bombs so characteristic of West Coast beers. The only caveat–the beer needs to be fresh. When cask ales start to stale, it’s very apparent (such is the nature of Real Ales); fortunately, Brewers Union seems to keep a good rotation so that I haven’t yet encountered any issues.
Underrated? Hell yes: being located 150 miles from Portland (100 miles from Bend) in a tiny mountain town dependent upon seasonal tourism, brewing a style (or more properly, a technique) of beer foreign to most Oregonians, the odds are definitely stacked against Brewers Union. But they are bucking those odds, and they are near the top of my list for favorite Oregon breweries–and if you visit they may well be on your list, too.